Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions

Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions

January 12, 2015

Today is the 153rd birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. On this day, it would be appropriate to recall the famous speech of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893.

Parliament of Religions

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America in 1492 and to showcase the fruits of man's material progress and the achievements of Western civilization. The Exposition would not have been complete without a representation of the world's thought. Neely's History of the Parliament of Religions tells us that the idea of a series of congresses for the consideration of ‘the greatest themes in which mankind is interested, and so comprehensive as to include representatives from all parts of the earth originated with Charles Carroll Bonney in the summer of 1889.’

The Parliament was a unique phenomenon in the history of religions. Never before had representatives of the world's great religions been brought together in one place, where they might without fear tell of their respective beliefs to thousands of people.

The Parliament opened on the morning of September 11, 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago. It had a massive participation - 4000 people had crowded onto the floor and into the gallery of the Hall of Columbus waiting for the delegates to appear.

The first day, September 11, was devoted to speeches of welcome from the officials and responses by the delegates. Swami Vivekananda’s historic happened during the afternoon.

The electric effect on the audience of his first words is well-known. Neely's History tells us that ‘when Mr Vivekananda addressed the audience as “Sisters and Brothers of America,” there arose a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes.’ Mrs SK Blodgett, who much later became Swamiji's hostess in Los Angeles, recalled ‘I was at the Parliament... When that young man got up and said, “Sisters and Brothers of America,” seven thousand people rose to their feet as a tribute to something they knew not what.’ The applause that had punctuated Swamiji's talk thundered at its close. The people had recognized their hero and had taken him to their hearts; thenceforth he was the star of the Parliament.

Here is the text of that speech, given 122 years ago, which can inspire people even today.

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.” Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

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